I read dystopias and apocalyptic fiction. Those are by far my favorite genres. The other day, I found a real gem in some fictional footnotes in one of them.

Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” quotes John Burns, a British labor leader around the turn of the century. He was visiting Chicago when a reporter asked him what he thought of the city.

Chicago is a pocket version of Hell.

Naturally, this made some headlines at the time, prompting another reporter to ask him some months later if Burns’ opinion had changed.

Why, yes. Hell is a pocket version of Chicago.

I shared this canard with my master teacher. She had her own response.

Chicago’s always been a rough town. If New York City is the Grand Dame of American cities, then Chicago is the rough-and-tumble juvenile delinquent. Even now, Chicago has an air of respectability, but that’s just a thin veneer — there’s still some roughness around the edges.

This comment inspired a series of personifications.

Boston — Matronly great aunt with some progressive whims.

Los Angeles — Irresponsibly extravagant 530-pound second cousin, whose mobile home is characterized by tchotchke and a 42-inch flat screen TV.

New Orleans — Barfly with a heart of gold, but one who will still take the guys upstairs.

San Francisco — Weird kid sister with an esoteric, artistic side and an eye for free love. May have once been a kid brother.

Washington, D.C. — Girl scout with such charisma that she gets away with having her overpriced cookies as a front for high-risk futures trading.

Any others in this tradition?


  1. Comments work now. Stupid WordPress. Grr.

  2. Hannah Baxter

    Miami–The beautiful, skanky, bottle blonde that asks questions in every class and tries, like super hard to be, like, totally profound.

  3. Wouldn’t “beach blonde” be more appropriate?

  4. Steven Maher

    Baltimore:
    Your good friend whose blue-collar job never impresses your other friends. Yet, with good food, cold drinks and hearty laugh always seems to bring more fun and camaraderie than pretension.

  5. I take it you’re from Baltimore? I only say that because that’s not how I remember Baltimore from Homicide: Life on the Street.




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